A few months ago, I traveled to California with my wife to watch my brother Tyson compete in an Ironman triathlon. It was pretty amazing to see him, along with everyone else, both men and women, swim, bike, and run for 8 or 10 or 12+ hours straight. It was nuts. Imagine getting up early, before the sun is anywhere near up, and wading into a dark river and swimming for about an hour- with no stopping, rest, or lifeguard. Then, instead of dying an anonymous silent death and sinking to the bottom of the murky water, you run to your bike, and hop onto the most uncomfortable bike seat ever designed, and start pedaling- for about 6 hours. Then, after crouching and straining on that bike for the same amount of time as two full length Lord of the Rings movies, and looking more like a crooked old lady with scoliosis, you get to relax by running a full marathon. Its mind boggling.

After witnessing this event, and seeing Tyson do so well. I had a familiar feeling start to swell inside me. It was a familiar feeling that had been silent, dormant, and suppressed for quite a while, but began to fester up just like a long forgotten illness. It was the re-emergence of the “I can’t let my brother beat me” syndrome that I thought I had fully recovered from. Turns out, there really is no cure. You can’t beat it, you can only hope to contain it.

Tyson, from years of competition growing up together, knew just the kind of salt to throw in that freshly opened wound as over the next few days, he “encouraged” me to throw my hat in the triathlon ring. Smarter men, like my other younger brothers Casey and Riley, would have been wise enough to see the end game, and let that “encouragement” go unacknowledged or laugh it off altogether. But, because of my newly reopened competition illness, I fell for it. Both Tyson and I suffer from rather severe strains of this disease.

I had previously enjoyed a stronghold on the long distance running record amongst my brothers with a full marathon, but even that looked pretty pathetic now. I had just been ceremoniously slapped across the cheek with the proverbial gauntlet. And he did it in such a nice way which was even worse.

So, I was done. And, soon after returning home, I signed myself up for a small triathlon, and started training. Running and biking weren’t so bad, having done endurance training before. But, here’s the difference, you can breathe when you run or bike. And I happen to be very fond of breathing. Swimming, however, presented as a whole different set of problems for me.

The first time I hit the pool, I knew it would be tough, but that was an understatement. I never realized just how far 25 meters can be until I tried to swim it. It then got worse as I then turned around, and did it again, and again, and again. It was exhausting. Its kind of like tying a plastic bag over your head, and walking on your hands up a steep hill.

After my first training session in the pool, I didn’t die, but I did I feel nauseous and lightheaded for hours afterwards. And that was only after about a whopping 200 meters with life-saving gasping-for-air breaks after each 25 meters. I was in trouble.

The next 8 weeks were brutal. I was thrown by how slow my progress was. I was used to being able to train regularly for 2-3 weeks while running, and seeing some significant improvements. With swimming, I was able to go a bit further, but it was very slow, slow, slow improvement. I felt I was improving at the pace of the sloth at the DMV in Zootopia.

Swimming was the obvious weak link on my chain. I knew that going in, but that reality soon started to hit me, hard. I started to have serious doubts, not necessarily about my ability to finish the race, but in my ability to actually survive the race. The way I saw it, if I didn’t somehow have arm floaties on, I only stood at about a 50:50 chance of surviving the swim portion. Seriously. I’m not even kidding.

Now, I don’t like to have weaknesses, let alone having very apparent ones, so this was uncharted territory in a sense. I was eating some serious humble pie, like several meals a day strict diet of humble pie. It was frustrating, but I stuck with it.

Now, after almost 12 weeks, I am proud to say that I have confidence that I will not die in 3 weeks when I go for my first little triathlon. It has been a slow go, but I can tell I have made improvements. Thank goodness, because, I don’t want to get lapped by those 87 year old grandmas because I can’t get out of the pool.

This process that I am in the middle of- this process of trying to get rid of my weakness, and possibly even turn it into a strength, is a principle that we are familiar with. Its frequently taught in the Book of Mormon. A few weeks ago, I recognized this principle all over again in a seemingly unrelated story. This time it was embedded in the way the Nephites dug ditches.

In Tyson’s last post, he mentioned that Moroni had prepared the Nephites to fight in the most unfair way possible against the Lamanites. He did it with unprecedented preparation. You can read it HERE. This process employed by Moroni has everything to do with the famous scripture from Ether. In his book, he explains why we have these weaknesses….

And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”  (Ether 12:5)

Ether wasn’t necessarily talking about swimming, or even Nephites digging ditches, but the principle applies to both of these scenarios.

We learn all about Moroni’s ditches in Alma chapter 49. It explains how the Nephites rebuilt the city of Ammonihah after it had been destroyed. They rebuilt it and then some. It was obviously regarded as a weak spot for the Nephites….

Behold, I said that the city of Ammonihah had been rebuilt. I say unto you, yea, that it was in part rebuilt; and because the Lamanites had destroyed it once because of the iniquity of the people, they supposed that it would again become an easy prey for them. But behold, how great was their disappointment; for behold, the Nephites had dug up a ridge of earth round about them, which was so high that the Lamanites could not cast their stones and their arrows at them that they might take effect, neither could they come upon them save it was by their place of entrance. Now at this time the chief captains of the Lamanites were astonished exceedingly, because of the wisdom of the Nephites in preparing their places of security.” (Alma 49:3-5)

So, the Lamanites were looking for the wimpiest spot to attack the Nephites. Remember that Ammonihah was wiped out in one day. It should have been easy pickins’ for the Lamanites. The  Nephite resistance should have been like me swimming 100 meters in the pool. Weak cheese. But, the Nephites had worked hard- very hard, in fact, to prepare themselves for that moment.

The Nephites had dug a ditch, not just any ditch, but a ditch so deep, and the accompanying ridge of earth was so high, they couldn’t hit the top by throwing stones or shooting arrows. I don’t know about anyone else, but I think that is a lot of dirt. Thats a big hole, and a big bank of earth.

I picture these Nephite soldiers shoveling, hauling, digging, laboring day after day load after load after load to prepare this city. I can imagine that in the beginning, it seemed like a daunting task, kind of like me imagining myself swimming in a dark river for over 2 miles at 5:00 a.m. But they kept at it. I am absolutely positive, that when these Nephites finished moving that vast amount of dirt, and constructing this massive protective wall all around their entire city, they were stronger than when they started. How could they not be? They probably looked like a bunch of linebackers fresh from the gym.

But, it didn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen by a lightning strike, or by the fairy Godmother coming and throwing twinkle dust the ground and turning it into a perfectly structured dirt fort. We don’t know exactly how they constructed this ditch or the bank of earth, but it wasn’t with a back hoe or diesel powered crane.

It was built bit by bit, little by little, Im sure almost imperceptible progress was made. But the process made those that were working on it strong, and the process is what transformed the city from a weak point into a stronghold. That same weak city that had been wiped out in a single day.

But, it wasn’t just one city. The Lamanites, came looking to take out Ammonihah, took one look, and said, “No thanks, peace out”, and headed instead to attack another weak spot, the city of Noah. But, Moroni was one step ahead…

 “But behold, to their astonishment, the city of Noah, which had hitherto been a weak place, had now, by the means of Moroni, become strong, yea, even to exceed the strength of the city Ammonihah. (Alma 49:14)

“Now behold, the Lamanites could not get into their forts of security by any other way save by the entrance, because of the highness of the bank which had been thrown up, and the depth of the ditch which had been dug round about, save it were by the entrance.

 And thus were the Nephites prepared to destroy all such as should attempt to climb up to enter the fort by any other way, by casting over stones and arrows at them.

 Now when they found that they could not obtain power over the Nephites by the pass, they began to dig down their banks of earth that they might obtain a pass to their armies, that they might have an equal chance to fight; but behold, in these attempts they were swept off by the stones and arrows which were thrown at them; and instead of filling up their ditches by pulling down the banks of earth, they were filled up in a measure with their dead and wounded bodies.”

 Thus the Nephites had all power over their enemies; and thus the Lamanites did attempt to destroy the Nephites until their chief captains were all slain; yea, and more than a thousand of the Lamanites were slain; while, on the other hand, there was not a single soul of the Nephites which was slain.” (Alma 49:18-23)

The Nephites had gained the advantage. They had put in the time, and had become incredibly strong. But it wasn’t by accident. It was a long, deliberate process. The cities and men had become strong by identifying and working on their weaknesses. By working, digging, scrambling, struggling, pulling, pushing, sweating, and preparing.

The Lord can, and will make our weaknesses strong, but he doesn’t just give it to us. It requires work on our end. We need to first recognize our weaknesses, and then we need to humbly commit to strengthen it by work. Then, the Lord blesses us, and aids us in our own little battles.

Moroni didn’t strengthen just the obvious weak spots, he strengthened all the cities. He didn’t take a look at Ammonihah, or Noah, and say, “Nice, our job is done.” He kept going. There is always room for improvement, or strengthening. That means, at the same time, there is always work to do. We can’t stop shoveling, or hauling, striving, or trying.

 “And now it came to pass that Moroni did not stop making preparations for war…” (Alma 50:1)

The beauty of all of this hard work isn’t just in the final product. A strong fort made for our own protection isn’t the only end goal. In addition to the increased strength where once we were weak, we are also happier.

We are happy when we work, get stronger, improve, and accomplish. Yes, we then become stronger. But, we also are happier along the way. The Lord blesses us in sneaky ways sometimes. Who would have thought, that through all this time of massive preparation, digging ditches, chopping trees, and laboring night and day that the Nephites would be the happiest they had ever been?

“But behold there never was a happier time among the people of Nephi, since the days of Nephi, than in the days of Moroni, yea, even at this time, in the twenty and first year of the reign of the judges.” (Alma 50:23)

The Nephites were happy. Happier, in fact, than ever. Even after digging seemingly endless numbers of ditches and trenches, and hauling dirt back and forth. Their strength came from the security of shoring up their places of retreat, and strengthening their weaknesses.

Sometimes our improvement doesn’t have to be pretty, or glorious, or fancy, or amazingly awesome. Sometimes we get better simply by working at our weaknesses. It may be slow, but it is always worth it.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. The Great Pyramid of Giza took 20 years to build. The Great Wall of China took thousands of years altogether to make, and the iconic temple that sits in the middle of Salt Lake City took over 40 years to finally complete.

Lets not lose sight of our goal- to be the best we can be, and live with God again. Lets look at our weaknesses only as opportunities for future strengths, and lets commit to be just as willing to work at them as the Nephites were in digging their ditches. Because, in the end, just like the Nephites, our safety and happiness is at stake.